This week, President Barack Obama lifted the ban on federal funding for stem cell research that destroys human embryos, and instantly one of the most intellectually deceitful debates of the past decade was reignited.
The president claimed that from now on, we will "make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology." Others dropped inane phrases regarding the "proper role of science" and the need to "remove politics from science," as if science existed in a vacuum.
To begin with -- though I disagree with the position -- opposition to embryonic stem cell research is not the equivalent of opposition to "science." Opponents have an ethical position that concerns policy. They are not alone.
Many liberals oppose the expansion of nuclear energy or genetically modified foods, to offer just two examples. Why would they stand in the way of science? Well, I assume, they hold some principled reservations about the repercussions of those activities.
And if scientific decisions -- or "facts" -- should be the sole driver of policy, then why are the proponents of embryonic stem cell research placing any restrictions on the research?
After all, Congress clamps constraints on science all the time. In this case, limits (some coming via the wonderfully named Dickey-Wicker Amendment) ban the use of taxpayer funds to directly fund creation of and experimentation on human embryos within private clinics and also outlaw cloning.
Do you find cloning immoral or just super creepy? What if cloning held the potential to cure some menacing ailment or appreciably enhance our quality of life? Would it be less scary? Less wicked? Would you support it then?
Whatever the answer, those are moral queries, not "factual" ones. So why, then, is Washington selecting which discipline is tolerable and which one isn't? Aren't we simply placing a new morality on science?
For instance, why does Washington ban women from producing embryos for the sole purpose of having them destroyed later in the name of science? Isn't such a prohibition a moral and ideological question, as well? It is a woman's choice, is it not, to destroy her fetus without having to provide any justification? Then why should that same woman be barred from creating an embryo to potentially cure diabetes?
Science doesn't fret over motives. Why does Washington?
Now, even if Obama meant it (and obviously he doesn't), allowing scientists to run policy could bring spectacularly dreadful consequences. We do not forfeit our tax policy to economists. Doctors do not run the health care industry. We don't let climatologists administrate energy policy, or we all would be cycling to community gardens for dinner and using solar panels to shield us from the cold, driving rain at night.
By permitting government to get into the embryonic stem cell funding business -- which, despite what some reports claimed, never was "banned" -- the issue was politicized by the White House. Washington funding, however it is allocated, threatens to generate and promote an industry of embryo creation and destruction in the name of research.
Whether you believe the existence of such an industry is a moral crisis or not is one thing. I don't know. But I do know that whatever promise stem cell research holds, it doesn't erase the fact that embryos aren't merely clusters of cells, but the initial stages of human life. That is about the only scientific "fact" in this debate.
After referring to budgets as "moral documents," some Democrats who support funding embryo destruction research demand hypocritically that their opponents expunge ideology from an issue that actually holds ethical implications.
Worse, they have dismissed anyone who opposes them as an anti-science troglodyte. It's a nifty way to undermine a debate. It's unfortunate, though, because this complex issue deserves more than cheap political posturing.
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